Friday, April 23, 2010

Writing Dialog

You know how sometimes dialog rambles on with little happening to advance the plot? Last Saturday I attended a terrific workshop on dialog with novelist Janet Fitch during Spokane's Get Lit! literary festival. Fitch is the author of White Oleander and other novels and her dialog jumps off the page.

Since I am currently revising a novel and all three of my Hamline students are working on novels this semester, it proved timely.

I kept these suggestions in mind all week as I worked on scenes in my novel.

Some Dialog Tips from novelist Janet Fitch:

* Dialog should NEVER be used to impart information or back story.

* Dialog is for the reader, not the other character. Therefore, don’t repeat what has already happened or been mentioned in story.

* Every character’s dialog should be particular to them. A line that anybody could say – nobody should say.

* Purpose of fictional dialog is to reveal tension, characters putting pressure on each other. Purpose of real life conversation is to avoid conflict.

What do you think? Any of these ring true for you?


  1. Interesting stuff. Thanks, Claire. I would say that Fitch's "no back story" rule is arguable. Sure you don't want a big info drop, and sure it has to sound like real conversation, but I'd say dialog can definitely be used to share information.

  2. Yes, interesting Claire. I'm jealous that you have things like this to go to! There's nada down where I am.

    Like Marsha, I don't totally agree with the no back story in dialogue. It can work.

    The last one is true in that dialog in fiction must move the plot by revealing potential tension, but I sometimes think the purpose of real life conversations are to create conflict as well... (depending on who you're talking to, of course!)

  3. The great acting teacher Stanislavski taught actors to look at each line of dialogue and ask what does my character want, called the characters objective. (Each character has an objective, and obstacle, and a method to achieve their goal.) But the objective is the most interesting because the actor will look at each line of dialogue and think what is my character's objective for saying this line. For example: to flatter, to convince, to understand, etc.

    Sometimes when I get a bit stuck, it's sort of interesting to try this out with dialogue. I think this connects to what Lisa said about real like conversations sometimes wanting to create conflict. When we speak we subconsciously have an objective too.

  4. I'm glad to hear that Marsha Q. and Lisa disagreed with the "no back story" rule. I've seen it used quite effectively by lauded authors. Louis Sachar's book Holes, for instance. But I have noticed other authors who employ it as a device--then it stands out as a mere convenience and rings a false note.

  5. I'll withhold thoughts on back story. But I did find it useful to rethink when I wanted to put information in dialog. Often, perhaps not always, it works more effectively in exposition.

    My favorite is: a line that anyone could say is a line that any nobody should say.

    Actually- Fitch's wording was social dialog not real life conversation. The hi, how are you kind. Myself, I am a master at real life conversation loaded with conflict.